NI Protocol: Government confident any possible compromises won’t break international law

The British government is confident that any possible compromise package it brings forward on the Northern Ireland Protocol will not break international law, sources have told the News Letter.

By Henry McDonald
Friday, 29th April 2022, 6:49 am
Updated Friday, 29th April 2022, 7:17 am

Defenders of the post-Brexit trade deal in Brussels, Dublin and Washington DC have warned that any major changes the UK would try to introduce to the protocol would be a breach of international law.

But the sources last night pointed to an unreported reply on the matter by Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis in the House of Commons this week which they said indicated the government believed any new compromise would not be illegal under international treaties.

Responding to a warning on Wednesday from Simon Hoare, the Conservative chairman of the Northern Ireland Select Committee at Westminster that the UK would be guilty of “terrible hypocrisy” if it broke international law over the protocol at a time when it was accusing Russia of breaching the global rules based system, Mr Lewis said: “Our position has been consistent, whether set out by the secretary of state for exiting the European Union or the attorney general in March 2019.

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The NI Protocol has imposed a trade border down the Irish Sea and has no support among elected unionists

“The secretary of state pointed out, ‘the objectives of the protocol were no longer being proportionately served by its provisions because, for example, it was no longer protecting the 1998 (Belfast) agreement in all its dimensions.’

“The UK could see agreement to end the provisions, which would be, no longer necessary to achieve the protocol’s objectives. The objectives of the protocol are very clear and they respect the Good Friday Agreement. At the moment, that is under massive threat in all three strands, and we need to make sure we are protecting the peace and prosperity that we have seen in Northern Ireland thanks to the Good Friday Agreement.”

The sources said this response demonstrated that if the government is preparing a White Paper with the objective of changing aspects of the grotocol then they are confident the changes will not breach international law.

The secretary of state also told the Commons that “nobody in the unionist community supports the protocol any more, so it does not have the consent across the communities”.

Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy, meanwhile, has called on ideology to be taken out of the negotiations around the protocol.

Mr Murphy, who still sits at Stormont as finance minister in a care-and-maintenance basis, stressed that he is still unable to make major fiscal decisions to help people with the cost-of-living crisis.

He said: “We’re all basically sitting in a limbo and that’s the effect of withdrawing the first minister – and that has zero impact on the protocol negotiations and the continued absence of an Executive will have zero influence on the protocol negotiations.

“They will be resolved between the EU and the British government and they need to be resolved and we want to see them being resolved in a pragmatic and practical way.”

Mr Murphy continued: “What we have to do is take the ideology out of the negotiations and get into the pragmatic dealing of the solutions through the discussions, through the British government and the EU, and some of that has already materialised in terms of medicines and other matters.”

Ulster Unionist candidate in Strangford Mike Nesbitt told an audience of business leaders at a CBI event in Belfast yesterday that his party “will not collapse anything” once MLAs return to Stormont after the election.

Mr Nesbitt said the tactic of walking out of government was “short term and a bad tactic at a time when what is needed is strategic thinking”.

On the protocol he added: “Unfortunately, there are politicians who delight in turning challenges into crises because it’s actually easier to say bad people are imposing bad things upon us than to accept the challenge of turning this into an opportunity.”

Alliance deputy leader and North Down MP Stephen Farry said there should be legal certainty for businesses operating under the protocol because if international law is broken on the trade deal this will leave local firms operating globally “in a grey zone”.

SDLP MP Claire Hanna told the meeting that there needed to be stability at Stormont adding that the “chronic, nihilistic turbulence and instability” of the system of governance cannot continue.